By David Shulman / The New York Review of Books
June 22, 2017
No amount of coddling and reassuring, no increased bribes in the form of more money or military aid, will have any effect on Israeli policy for the simple reason that Israel considers any sacrifice that would be necessary for peace far worse than maintaining the current situation . . . . The assumption that Israel genuinely wants a peace agreement is simply wrong; the costs of such an agreement are tangible, immediate, and perhaps overwhelming, involving the loss of territory, an end to colonization, and potential political collapse, whereas the costs of maintaining the status quo are for many Israelis, if at times unpleasant, eminently bearable.
This June, Israel is marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Six-Day War. Some Israelis, including most members of the present government, are celebrating the country’s swift victory over Egypt, Jordan, and Syria as the beginning of the permanent annexation of the entire Palestinian West Bank; others, like me, mourn it as the start of a seemingly inexorable process of moral corruption and decline, the result of the continuing occupation of the West Bank, along with Israel’s now indirect but still-crippling control of Gaza. As it happens, my own life in Israel coincides exactly with the occupation. I arrived from the US in 1967, not as an ideological Zionist but as a young student who had fallen madly in love with the Hebrew language. Sometimes I think it is my passion for the language that has kept me here for five decades, although I would now want to add the strong feeling that it is my fate and my good fortune to be able to fight the good fight.
The country I came to live in fifty years ago was utterly unlike the one I live in today. It was no utopia, but its society was broadly moderate and humane, a mildly Mediterranean version of a modern European social democracy. Despite what some would say, it was not a colonial settlers’ society. There was widespread fear and even hatred of Arabs, including Arab citizens of Israel, but it was nothing like the rampant racism one now hears every day on the radio or TV. Shame, sincere or not, had not yet disappeared from public life.
In those early years, most Israelis regarded the occupied territories — which included the Golan Heights and the Sinai Peninsula as well as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — not as providing an opportunity for enlarging the boundaries of the state through colonization but as bargaining chips in an eventual and hoped-for peace settlement with the Arabs. There were as yet no Israeli settlements in the territories and hence no fanatical, messianic settlers; the Israeli army could still claim, with some justice, to be an army of defense, not a police force sent to ensure that the project of seizing Palestinian land take place without too much resistance from the local population.
Not surprisingly, a number of new books have appeared in this grim anniversary year, some of which attempt to make sense of how the Israeli state was hijacked by the settlers and how the occupation of most of the territories captured in 1967, not counting Sinai, was made permanent. Those who want to understand the conditions that led to the Six-Day War will find a good account, better than most earlier ones, in Guy Laron’s The Six-Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East.
Laron examines the shifting configurations that preceded, and in some ways determined, the outbreak of the war: these included Lyndon Johnson’s stark turn away from John F. Kennedy’s policy of dialogue with and strong economic support for Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt (Nasser had promised Kennedy to keep the Israeli–Arab situation “cool” as the quid pro quo) and Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin’s increasingly belligerent moves toward Syria. Rabin, according to Laron, wanted to go to war with Syria and took every opportunity to push the Israeli cabinet in this direction in the critical months of spring 1967.
By far the most cogent of the new books, however, is Nathan Thrall’s The Only Language They Understand, which surveys the last five decades and comes to a remarkable conclusion: the only way to produce some kind of movement toward resolving the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is to apply significant coercive force to the parties involved, and in particular to Israel.